North Coast Journal


Coming of Age in Blue Lake

by Lisa Ladd-Wilson

All of theater is based upon one word-if. This is what Carlo Mazzone-Clementi is trying to convey to seven students in his Advanced Physical Acting class at Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre. But to get the full picture, you have to know these things: Mazzone-Clementi is a world-renowned expert on a theatrical form called commedia; he is also an accomplished mime who traveled with Marcel Marceau.

He speaks with a heavy Italian accent and the hesitation of a man who learned English by listening to others talk, but even at the age of 75 he has the kind of forceful presence you'd expect of someone referred to as "maestro." His face is grizzled, his hair is white, and his gaze is intense. When he talks, his voice travels from stage whisper to near shout, and when he punctuates that sentence with the word "if," his right hand fires upward like a rocket, index finger pointing straight at the heavens.

All of theater is based upon one word - IF.

If the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre were a person, it could walk into the Logger bar across the street and order a drink, because it just turned 21 years old. With that drink, it could toast the final payment it just made on its mortgage, which makes Dell'Arte Inc. the free-and-clear owner of the Oddfellows Hall at the corner of First and H streets in Blue Lake. Inside the Oddfellows Hall that Dell'Arte now owns is a tiny, white replica of what the hall will soon become after it completes a $670,000 renovation.

All very adult behavior.

And if the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre were a person, Mazzone-Clementi would be its father - the patriarch who has returned, after more than a decade, to spend his later years with his discendente.

Dell'Arte Inc. was founded out of a dream and a marriage. The dream was the Grand Comedy Festival, a theatrical event that would put Humboldt County smack in the middle of the stage circuit between San Francisco and Ashland, Ore. The marriage was between Mazzone-Clementi and Jane Hill.

The dream became a reality in 1973 and ran for six years as the Qual-A-Wa-Loo festival. It ended about the same time as the marriage. But the Dell'Arte School and Dell'Arte Players Company have endured - surviving the divorce of its parents; overcoming the initial distrust that understandably occurs when clowns, jugglers and masked street performers move into a small rural logging town; and prevailing over all odds after a Bay Area newspaper bestowed the kiss of death on the company by tagging Dell'Arte as "environmentalist."

Humboldt County has seen theater groups come and go, and the economy has been tough on the arts. The Eagle House theater was clipped, some repertory theaters are struggling and the venerable Pacific Art Center has closed. Dell'Arte, however, is expanding.

"We've managed in certain ways to thrive," said Michael Fields, managing/artistic director of the players company and master teacher at the school.

The idea of Dell'Arte came from an Italian tradition known as capo comico, said Jane Hill, wherein "the mature artist who has developed their own skills has a kind of obligation to pass those skills onto younger performers, to keep the tradition alive."

Commedia dell'arte - a form of Italian street theater using masks that cover the top half of the face - was one of the traditions Dell'Arte would keep alive, as was mime; another was the concept of "theater of place."

"(It was a) sort of Renaissance concept," Hill said from her home in Omaha, Neb. "The idea was to get out of the city into an isolated area and concentrate on work. It was part of that 'hippie, back to the land' movement."

The words "Jane Hill" and "Omaha, Neb." sound discordant to just about anyone who knows Hill (and it seems that almost everyone in Humboldt County does). Her involvement with the theatrical side of life is long-standing: She trained at Carnegie Mellon University in the early '60s, taught at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco (with Mazzone-Clementi) and after arriving on the North Coast she appeared in, or directed productions at, nearly every area theater .

She also appeared in the first Pampers commercial.

Before she headed to the flat lands to head up Omaha's opera company, Hill was director at the Dell'Arte School. That stint began after 10 years as head of the drama department at College of the Redwoods, which immediately followed Hill's initial departure from Dell'Arte.

"The city" Mazzone-Clementi and Hill wanted to "get out of" back in 1971 was Berkeley; "the isolated area" was Humboldt County, where Mazzone-Clementi already owned land.

"Our idea was that we'd be based in Berkeley and make escapes in the summer," Hill said, but then a Realtor showed them the Oddfellows Hall in Blue Lake. "We thought, 'Wow, this could be the site around which all these ideas are developed.'"

Of course, there was no money, but there was Muriel Dinsmore, longtime Humboldt resident who was then a staff writer for the Times-Standard.

"Muriel did this incredible, wonderful story," said Hill, whose friendship with Dinsmore continues to this day. "She gave us incredible PR, and hosted an entire group of grungy hippies in her home."

Hill and Mazzone-Clementi took that newspaper story to the Greater Eureka Development Corp., which loaned them enough money to put a down payment on the Oddfellows Hall. The nonprofit, educational corporation called Dell'Arte Inc. had a home.

You couldn't blame a prospective Dell'Arte student who, upon driving past the school's building, pressed his foot a little harder on the accelerator and drove right back out of town. Joan Schirle, one of the school's teachers and cofounders, is quite sure it has happened, probably more than once.

"The rundown look affects everything, from students thinking it looks bad to the public wondering if what we do here has quality," Schirle said. "That's why we're allowing some of the growing pains of turning 21 to alleviate what we've put up with for so long. It doesn't fit us anymore."

The Oddfellows Hall houses Dell'Arte Inc., which includes the school, the players company, a program for public schools called Education Through Art and the Mad River Festival summer program (see this month's Calendar). More specifically, it contains a two-room office, a small theater, a prop shop (which doubles as a dressing room), a costume room, a gymnasium-like main studio, a kitchen, a smaller studio and what everyone admits is a poor excuse for a guest quarters.

During a tour of the building, Peter Buckley, who took over for Hill when she went to Omaha, notes that two of the biggest perks of the renovation will be a bathroom and dressing room for the actors. The outdoor arena in the backyard, where much of the Mad River Festival takes place, also will be improved.

A poster that hangs in Dell'Arte's office advertises "The Grand 13th Annual Masquerade Ball," scheduled for Dec. 27, 1913. The cost of the banquet - 50 cents. Ditto the cost of the evening dance, which featured the Lax and Wise Orchestra of Eureka.

In the summer of 1973, however, it was the Grand Comedy Festival at Qual-A-Wa-Loo. The word came from the Wiyot name for Humboldt Bay, explained the grandly designed, 36-page program for the festival's debut season. Qual-A-Wa-Loo opened with the theme of Shakespeare on Broadway; the plays were "Kiss Me Kate" (based upon "The Taming of the Shrew") and "The Boys From Syracuse" ("The Comedy of Errors").

The festival was associated with College of the Redwoods for its first four years. It moved to Eureka's Old Town in 1977. Muriel Dinsmore wrote in the Times-Standard: "The addition of the festival to Old Town should be a definite summer plus for the county and the community - and frosting on the cake for the day of the Old Town Fourth of July Festival."

Instead, the festival was to come to an end.

Michael Fields came to Humboldt County to be an actor in the Qual-A-Wa-Loo Festival of 1975. He played Carle in Moliere's "Scapin," and was the stage manager for it and another show that season.

"If Dell'Arte's turning 21, then I was 21 when I came here," Fields said with a bit of a laugh, "so my expectations of what theater was were probably really limited.

"I didn't know quite what to make of Carlo, but I was intrigued by him, and I was enamored of Jane in terms of her abilities."

Joan Schirle already was in the area, living in semi-retirement in Southern Humboldt when she heard about Qual-A-Wa-Loo and met Hill and Mazzone-Clementi in 1975.

"When I met Jane and Carlo I was very impressed by their vision of having a theater company in a rural place and deriving inspiration from it," Schirle said. "They were just opening the school, and they hired me as a teacher."

"Theater of place" was the vision of Dell'Arte shared by Mazzone-Clementi and Hill; the two differed, however, on what it meant.

"For Jane, community was the strongest thing. Carlo was representing more of an artistic vision, looking at a very large picture," Schirle said. "He wanted the rural area to inspire the larger picture of humanity and nature. Jane was focused more on, 'How do you get this section of the community to talk to this section of the community?'"

There apparently were many differences between Mazzone-Clementi and Hill during that time, and as the marriage began collapsing, Hill began pulling away from Dell'Arte. Schirle began taking on more and more of Hill's managerial duties at the school. It was around this same time that the players company began forming.

With its first touring play, an antinuclear piece titled "The Loon's Rage," the Dell'Arte Players Co. established its agitprop roots.

Agitprop is short for "agitation propaganda." Neil Simon, for example, does not write agitprop theater.

"It's theater that agitates people to act and presents a propaganda point of view," Schirle said. "It's extremely dualistic, in that there's good and there's bad people, and you know very clearly whose side to be on."

The San Francisco Mime Troupe does agitprop theater, and that's the reason Mazzone-Clementi was in Berkeley in the first place: The mime troupe decided the masks of commedia would be very effective for their political pieces, and so they had invited him to the Bay Area.

For the newly formed Dell'Arte Players Co., masks offered endless possibilities for the concept of "theater of place": In "The Loon's Rage," they depicted animals and spirits of Native American culture; in "Whiteman Meets Bigfoot," the masks were used not only for that legendary creature of Northern California, but for R. Crumb's Mr. Natural character, as well.

The Dell'Arte Players' unique style garnered good notices out of the area, and its tours brought much-needed money to the school (which was attracting students from around the globe). Toward the end of 1979, founding members Schirle, Fields and Jael Weisman, and others such as Alain Schons, Steve Most, Mara Sabinson and Donald Forrest, began the first play in what would become the famous "Redwood Curtain" trilogy - "Intrigue at Ah-Pah" (1979), "The Road Not Taken" (1984), and "Fear of Falling."

Starring Schirle as tough private detective Scar Tissue, the trilogy borrowed its style from Raymond Chandler and its ideas from the timber/environmentalists/Native Americans/nature scenario that often seems to define the North Coast. In "Ah-Pah," Scar tracks down the mystery of the dwindling salmon population; in "Road," a much darker piece, Scar shakes herself off the barstool she's been calling home to investigate old-growth clearcuts.

"Ah-Pah" brought the players company to the heighth of success, with positive reviews in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The play also became the straw that broke Dell'Arte back home.

"We got a rave from the L.A. Times on the front of its Friday calendar section, and we sold out six weeks," Fields remembered. "Six weeks, seven shows a week. Consequently, the company was enjoying the height of success at that point.

"And at that point, the school tried basically to cut us off."

It was a crisis between the players company and the school that had been building essentially since Hill left. Dell'Arte Inc. had tried a variety of governing methods, including forming a collective, none of which worked particularly well. The school's teachers - Fields, Schirle, et al - were on the road frequently as the players company.

"We returned home after the run, and there was a big upheaval," Fields said. "It was a battle over where the organization was going to go, who was going to lead it. It became personal, to some extent."

When the smoke cleared, the governing board was fired en toto and several Dell'Arte members left - including Mazzone-Clementi himself. There was a massive restructuring, with the school and players troupe forming separate entities. A membership nonprofit was created, ensuring that power didn't belong only to the board.

"It was very, very hard," Schirle said.

The dark times, some people call it.

And it didn't help that the San Francisco Chronicle called Dell'Arte an environmentalist theater.

"A very civilized relationship" is how Jane Hill characterizes the interaction between Dell'Arte and the timber industry.

"The (players company's) work has been critical not mainly of the timber industry but of the corporate structure of the timber industry," she said, and indeed when Louisiana-Pacific workers went on strike in 1983, the Dell'Arte troupe entertained the strikers' children at a support rally. "And I think we have felt philosophically - rightly or wrongly - that the corporate structure tried to play off loggers vs. environmentalists.

"I also think Dell'Arte's work has been respectfully allied to a kind of Native American philosophy about preserving the resources of the place in which you live."

But Hill had no trouble calling timber companies to ask for support for a historical Christmas play, and the companies often have helped the theater. And they never, Hill emphasized, never tried to sway Dell'Arte's work.

The last play of the trilogy - "Fear of Falling" - and the company's most recent work, "Korbel," have reflected the evolution of Dell'Arte's take on the timber wars, too.

"It's now more, 'My goodness, aren't these complicated issues?' Here we have a situation in which people have made their living for decades off a particular resource and that resource is dwindling. But what do you do about people whose lives are tragically impacted by that?" said Schirle.

"And I think living here all this time, being part of this community, gave us a perspective ... that was really beyond the simplistic view of good and evil."

"I think we were quite arrogant," Fields said. "Not intentionally so, of course, but in an ideological sense."

"We're still out to examine the world around us," Schirle said. "It's just that we've moved away more from social-issue plays to family-issue plays."

"Our life situations are so radically different now," Fields added. "All of us, I think, own a home. We have a sense of roots in this community."

Dell'Arte's secretary/treasurer, Bobbi Ricca, sits on the Blue Lake City Council. Peter Buckley is on the board of directors of the Blue Lake Chamber of Commerce. Dell'Arte's Education Through Art program has forged a tight link between it and Blue Lake's public school.

The community apparently senses it has a stake in Dell'Arte, too. In 1989, the city declared Dell'Arte the center of the town's revitalization efforts.

From outsiders to part of the community. It's a change in attitude on everyone's part, "As simple as having someone on the street say hello to you," Hill said.

Hill likes to tell this story: The first years Dell'Arte lived in Blue Lake, the building was sometimes egged, and sometimes insults were hurled at its members. There was even the odd drunken attack or two. No one in town seemed quite sure what these oddball artists were doing in their midst.

In 1985, Dell'Arte held a reunion in Blue Lake, and friends from around the world attended, singing and performing until late one Saturday night. They fell asleep across the backyard lawn - until about 8 a.m. Sunday.

"This guy came out onto one of those balconies that used to be a restaurant at First and Railroad avenues, and he has a huge radio. He shouted: 'Hey, all you puppet makers! It's time to get up!' And he turned on the radio full blast.

And I thought, this is progress. They're still insulting us, but at least now they have some concept of what we do."

After 21 years, the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre owns a home. It is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. A student who graduates from its well-respected, two-year program can expect more than a polite glance when auditioning for circuses, theater companies and other troupes.

The Mad River Festival, which Dell'Arte hosts June 23 to July 22, has doubled in attendance the last few years. In 1994, nearly 3,000 people attended its 28 performances.

This year Carlo Mazzone-Clementi returned from teaching and living in Denmark and Italy. The school he founded hopes to set up a retirement fund for him. In the meantime, he is teaching at Dell'Arte again.

Mazzone-Clementi is talking to his students. Action without thought is nothing, he says. Thought without action - nothing, also. You must ask, Who am I? Am I existing?

All of theater is based upon one word.


Lisa Ladd-Wilson is a Eureka free-lance writer and regular contributor to the Journal.


"Art of commedia"


Commedia dell'arte translates to "the art of the skilled ones." It began as street theater during the Renaissance, the theater of the common people of Italy.

The masks of commedia cover only the top half of the face and are essential to the art.

The touring troupe of old had no set plays, only scenarios. It was ad lib and improv, but within a set structure.

There are three levels of characterization: caricati are caricatures, such as lovers or noble mothers, and wear no masks; macchietta ("little spot") are small roles, similar to cameos; and the stock characters, the most important, are called maschere, the masked characters.

The maschere are set "types" who appear in every play with the same name and features: Arlecchino is zany, for instance; Pantalone is an older man, a miser. They are so broadly painted as to be recognizable in any town, anytime, anywhere. (Mazzone-Clementi says Jack Benny was a perfect Pantalone character.)

"Their garb and costumes may change, but not their traits," Mazzone-Clementi writes. "We see them in historical plays and on the streets of our home towns. We laugh because they are recognizable, and delight in watching the 'known' character contend with an 'unknown' situation."


"Carlo the Classic"


It's doubtful that the little city of Blue Lake ever will see the likes of Carlo Mazzone-Clementi marching into town again.

He has a classic background: The town he calls home is Padua in Italy, the same city in which Shakespeare based his "Taming of the Shrew." (Padua is next door to Verona, where Romeo and Juliet got their stars crossed.) His skills are in the arts of mime, movement and commedia. He doesn't only know who Dario Fo is, he knew Dario Fo.

Mazzone-Clementi is not shy about dropping the names of famous people he has worked with. As a matter of fact, he will tell you: "I'm going to drop names," and then he does: James Earl Jones, Juliet Prowse, Julie Harris, Vittorio Gassman.

He will be 75 in December - at least according to the American way of figuring such things. (In Italy, he says, a child is considered 1-year-old on the January after his birth.)

"Carlo considers himself a pilgrim," says Joan Schirle of Dell'Arte Inc., and indeed Mazzone-Clementi confirms this. But he also calls himself a non-verbal humanist, a planter of seeds and a pioneer.

It is fascinating to watch Mazzone-Clementi teach. One day he asks his students to silently portray the following scenario: You are at a train station. The person most dear to you is leaving you. You have said your goodbyes. They look out at you through the train window; you look at them from the platform. And the train is not leaving. You do not want the person to leave your life; yet, the longer the train just sits there, the more awkward you feel.

You don't want the train to leave, but you want the train to leave. Conflict. Comedy, tragedy. He tells his students it's simple, and you darn near believe him, even though you know it's not so.

Mazzone-Clementi says he never left Dell'Arte in spirit, but physically he has returned. He bought a house in Eureka and is looking forward to two things: planting a garden in his yard and the arrival of his son, Val, who will graduate from college this month.


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